History Lesson: Why Do We Carve Pumpkins?

Our country's pumpkin-carving history began with a spooky tale.

America is a land of many traditions, but most of us don’t have the first idea how they started. One of our country’s most-loved pastimes is carving pumpkins in the fall. (And, of course, enjoying the crispy, crunchy spoils—pumpkin seeds!)

Every October, ghoulish gourds peer out from doorsteps across the country—but what is it about the crisp air, changing leaves and end of summer that urges us to break out the carving knives? A time to welcome the coming winter, October is full of superstition as well as celebration. Although a jack o’ lantern adorning every doorway is the norm, most people don’t know why: We’ll share the secret of the season’s most ubiquitous decoration.

Why Do We Carve Pumpkins?

Thought the Americans were the first to carve the orange fruit into freaky figures? Think again. Like most American folklore, this spooky ritual comes from our European ancestors. We’re a country of immigrants, so most of our traditions originate from outside the U.S.—and jack o’ lanterns are no different. The practice dates back to a centuries-old Irish myth about a man named “Stingy Jack.” Don’t know how to get started? Here are our tips on how to carve a pumpkin.

If you want to try something different, learn how to carve a pineapple for Halloween.

The Twisted Tale of Stingy Jack

According to the legend, Jack was a devious fellow who outsmarted the devil time and time again. As told by history.com, Jack, the town drunk with a clever side, met the devil one fateful night. The duo shared a drink and, too cheap to pay for his booze, Jack convinced Satan to morph into a coin that he could use to pay for their beverages. As soon as he did, Jack put the coin in his pocket next to a silver cross. The devil was unable to change back into his original form, and Jack held him that way until Satan agreed not to take his soul. Sneaky!

Next, the shifty swindler convinced the devil to climb up a tree to steal a piece of fruit. He quickly carved the sign of the cross into the tree bark. Again, the devil couldn’t come down until he agreed not to bother Jack for another 10 years.

Shortly after his meeting with the devil, Jack died. As legend goes, God would not accept Jack into heaven and sent him down to visit the devil in hell. But the devil kept his promise. He wouldn’t let Jack into hell, either, and imprisoned him to an even darker fate. The devil sent Jack into the dark night to roam the world for eternity, with only a coal to light his way. Jack lit the coal, put it in a hollowed-out turnip and has been drifting through the world, scaring children ever since.

Townsfolk began to refer to this figure as “Jack of the lantern,” and shortly thereafter “Jack o’ lantern.” People began to carve their own lanterns out of turnips, beets, potatoes and eventually pumpkins in hopes of warding away any ghostly spirits.

The Tradition Today

Over time, the tradition reached American shores by way of mouth, and immigrants from various countries took their own approach to the ancient tradition. A chiefly American fruit, the pumpkin became our own adaptation of this European tradition, and it’s now a symbol of Halloween. As years went by, the spooky history behind this family tradition has been lost. So now carving pumpkins is synonymous with family and fun instead of spooky spirits.

This October, when you reach for a warm glass of cider and a carving knife, remember the spirit of Stingy Jack, and spook your friends and family with this ghostly tale!

Don’t know how long do pumpkins last or how to preserve pumpkins? Here’s everything you need to know about pumpkin picking, care and storage for this classic fall decor.

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Laura Denby
Laura is a New York-based freelance food writer with a degree in Culinary Arts from the Institute of Culinary Education and a degree in Journalism from Penn State. Her work has appeared in Taste of Home, Chowhound, the Culture Trip and Patch.